A skier may gaze across the valley and see Togari’s infinitely more popular cousin, Nozawa Onsen, from Togari Onsen Ski Resort. It’s within arm’s reach and yet, a world away on a cold winter’s powder day. Where Nozawa has long been in vogue and competition for powder is fierce, in Togari Onsen that competition is inexistent. It’s also relatively inexpensive to stay and play in Togari. Proximity, peace and price are just three simple reasons one might choose Togari Onsen, but not those which guided MTN Holidays owners, Lianne and Sam Buchanan, to plant their roots here.
“I’m not gunna lie, we were first thinking of moving to Nozawa Onsen when we moved to the area,” begins UK native Lianne. “But then when we actually started looking into it, the houses there were very cramped together and there was often no parking”.
“A lot of times the properties didn’t even have a bath because the locals will all go out to the onsen all the time. Sometimes, you just want to be able to get clean in your own house, you know?”
“We also wanted to grow our own vegetables and raise chickens, and there was nothing in the main village of Nozawa that fit the bill. So, then we started to look around the area a bit and came across Togari. It’s more of a village here and most of the houses for sale had big hatake (farmland)”.
“And now with how popular the ski resort has got at Nozawa — I mean Saturdays and Sundays, it’s just a zoo up there, so I am totally happy we chose Togari,” Lianne says.
The contrasts on and off the resort’s runs make Togari the right choice, she says. “Togari’s lift lines are nothing in comparison. On a weekday, we often kind of feel that we have the resort all to ourselves and it’s just been the best decision we could’ve made”.
“Sam does a little bit of property consulting these days and the prices of properties in Nozawa are just skyrocketing. Maybe there’s a part of me that thinks we could’ve gotten into Nozawa a few years ago at a cheaper level because the property price difference just over here on the other side of the valley now is incredible”.
“I get to live over here in what I call “real” Japan and I can pop over to Nozawa whenever I feel like I want to experience a bit more of that kind of that big resort vibe, so it’s the best of both”.
Lianne and Sam, an American, both came to Japan as English teachers. While teaching is the overwhelmingly major occupation for foreigners starting a life in Japan, they longed for something far less typical and moved to Iiyama in search of a more “self-sufficient” lifestyle (Iiyama is the city encompassing Togari Onsen – most past visitors to Nozawa will recognise the name as their shinkansen stop).
The quiet country life doesn’t mean these two have their feet up. “What are we busy with at the moment?” Sam asks rhetorically. “Planning three reforms, guest messaging automation, developing and conducting tours, making repairs, submitting insurance claims and subsidy applications, working with the resort, tourism board and city on a variety of issues, transitioning the properties into summer mode, landscaping, developing mail marketing lists, writing our accommodation terms and conditions, reviewing our liability insurance coverage, rethinking our café/restaurant menu and developing the ski school to name a few,” he explains. Sam manages the English instructors at Togari Ski School and “I am still a real estate consultant as well”.
“In the green season, we are constantly renovating and preparing for winter,” he continues. “In winter, we try to ski as much as possible while running a multi-property accommodation business”.
“We are members of the tourism board and are working hard to improve the ski resort and make it more welcoming to customers. This year we will go to Australia for a snow sports convention on the resort’s behalf”.
Togari Onsen Snow Resort has had its challenges, as Lianne explains. “There used to be another lift above the Tondaira area, taking you to the top of the mountain, but it was seriously damaged in a landslide around 10 years ago and the management hasn’t had the funds to reinstate it. There is potential there to get that up and running again with investment though, which would add much-needed altitude and access to some very fun and interesting terrain”.
Not all grey clouds are without their silver linings, however. “During Corona, the resort had to make a few cutbacks. At the skiers’ left side of the resort called Orion, they had to close two lifts because they didn’t have the budget to run them. Now this is a sad story and there are definitely disadvantages for the hotels on that side of the hill, but as a punter, as someone who likes to ride, it’s been quite good,” Lianne offers.
“That side of the hill is still accessible from the top and so it makes a great ungroomed run down. To service the hotels on that side, the ski resort is running a shuttle bus. So, after having one of the best runs of the day, all you have to do is cross the street and hop on the bus and they just whisk you back to the other side. I’ve never had to wait more than a couple minutes for the bus to come and once you get on, they just take you straight away. A lot of people don’t realise that’s something you can do”.
Another thing people may not realise they can do in Togari is ride a snow bike. Togari Onsen Snow Resort is home to Japan’s first snow bike park. “Yeah, the snow bike park is great,” enthuses Lianne. “They have these specially designed bikes with fat tyres called “fat bikes”. The tyres are nice and wide, so you don’t dig into the snow. What’s different about just riding around on a fat bike is that here you can put your bike on the lift and ride it down the hill. People who enjoy mountain biking or really anybody who can ride a bicycle will like it. It makes for a good day off from skiing. There are strider bikes for little kids too which is really cute”.
After studying up on local history to run e-bike tours, Lianne says the history of skiing in Nagano Prefecture “started right here in Iiyama. There’s been skiing in Iiyama City since 1912 when a local priest learnt how to ski from an Austrian Army major and brought a pair of skis back to teach the local children”.
“It was first and foremost a farming village. Some of the locals can follow their history here back to more than 1000 years ago. That’s maybe one of the reasons why it’s retained its rural charm. The locals have been living in their ancestral family homes here for generations. There’s a genuine community and history here that you wouldn’t find in say, Madarao for example, that was created purely as a resort much more recently,” Lianne opines.
Having worked an interesting season on a rice farm in Togari, this author can attest to the rural charm of which Lianne speaks. My brother-in-law, Hajime Maki, also spent a winter season in the area, working at a hotel in exchange for accommodation, beer money and a free lift pass during the 2005 ski season.
A floating rumour or two suggests that Togari was known for having the cheapest lift tickets in Japan around that time. Whether true or not, Hajime says it did tend to attract its share of uni students on a budget. “Guests staying at Togari Onsen would receive a letter of invitation for the following year,” says Hajime, “and by showing the envelope, you would receive a discount on lift tickets”.
“Originally, I went to Togari Onsen for my university summer camp,” he recalls. “That’s why I decided to work in winter. The owner of the inn I stayed at was very kind to me, so I started going there regularly after graduating from university. I stayed at Resort House Chikuma, but it went out of business a few years ago due to the aging of the owner”.
Aging is a matter which affects many of Japan’s smaller ski resorts. Be it people, infrastructure or Mother Nature, keeping things fresh requires generational efforts and often, accepting the influence of an outside perspective. Lianne says the people of Togari Onsen have been welcoming of her and Sam’s efforts.
“We’ve been very lucky to have an incredibly supportive community,” she begins. “They are all strong characters, funny, kind and welcoming but you know, kind of stubbornly doing things their way. We just sort of added into the mix as if we’d been here all along!”
The couple insist that starting their accommodation business wasn’t on the radar when they first came to the area. That idea came when they were under the influence. “We were teachers and we were living in the neighbourhood. We got to know the locals without any agenda, so to speak. We actually kind of fell into the business that we’re in now”.
“We were spending a lot of time working on our little cottage. And the guys were joking with us at one of those drinking parties after a volunteer cleaning day, that one of our neighbours has a big empty hotel that’s not doing anything and we should just move in there instead. Sometimes it turns out the best ideas happen when you’ve been drinking sake!”
“We eventually took Noguchi-san up on his offer and we were able to buy Hunters Gate (a 7-bedroom, ski-in/ski-out, self-contained property for up to 24 people) for a very reasonable price and fix it up ourselves. We could not have done any of it without the support and guidance of our very kind community,” says Lianne.
“Then we converted the cottage we had been living in, Togari Cottage, into a two-bedroom accommodation that can sleep five. Two years later we added a four-bedroom cottage, Slopeside Bekkan, that sleeps ten. Over the summer we will be renovating the upstairs of Togari Inn into another 7-bedroom apartment for 20 people”.
That might all sound quite exhausting for the MTN Holidays owners but perhaps even more so without the right start to the day. “Somewhere along the way we also started a café because Togari didn’t have good coffee. We decided that things we think Togari should have, we’re just gunna start doing!”
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